Dr Toby Lowe: A dissenting voice on outcomes-based approach

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n the latest issue of VIEW we carried an interview with Celine McStravick, director of the National Children’s Bureau in Northern Ireland, in which she praised the inclusion of an outcomes-based approach in the draft Programme for Government.

Academic Dr Toby Lowe offered an opposing view of an outcomes-based approach to public policy in an interview with VIEW editor Brian Pelan

On page eight of the draft Programme for Government in Northern Ireland it says: “The approach taken in this Framework draws on the techniques set out by Mark Friedman in his book ‘Trying Hard is Not Good Enough’, which describes a range of practical techniques supporting an increased outcome focus in public policy.”

US author Friedman is the Director of the Fiscal Policy Studies Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico

I asked academic Dr Toby Lowe, who is carrying out research work at Newcastle University in the north of England, what did he think of the decision of the Stormont Executive to use Mark Friedman’s Outcomes-Based Accountability model (OBA™) in its Framework document.

“There have been numerous studies into the implementation of Outcomes-Based Performance Management (OBPM) and they all say essentially the same thing ­– it’s good to talk about outcomes as part of generating a common vision, but as soon as you try and use them for performance management, they end up undermining effective practice. It is shocking that the Northern Ireland Government is choosing to adopt a version of OBPM in the face of this evidence.

“Because from the evidence that I’ve seen, it strongly suggests that OBPM does not work and even the small number of papers that find positive aspects about it are equivocal about its long term impact. The most supportive evidence says it’s good to talk about outcomes, so it’s a useful exercise to bring partners together, to talk about what they’re trying to achieve, but there isn’t an evidence at all as far as I can see that says that it improves outcomes for people and there’s lots and lots of evidence that says OBPM undermines effective practice and therefore makes outcomes worse for people, particularly the most disadvantaged.”

I asked Dr Toby Lowe could he provide me with examples of were OBPM hasn’t worked. “The clearest example of this is I think is from a study (1) done in Australia of Results Based Accountability (RBA) by Dr Lynne Keevers. It’s the only study to my knowledge that is a before and after study of the implementation of OBPM. And basically, what it said was that during the process of trying to formulate simple outcome metrics, the complexity of the goals and ambitions of real people on the ground got lost, so it meant that the diversity of real people’s ambitions all got mashed up into simple goals that then prevented the workers from pursuing the diversity of those ambitions.

“In the end, all of this stuff becomes about trying to make people behave in prescribed ways. If you set an outcome, say that someone should have a job by the end of the intervention process, if that person doesn’t have a job by the end of it then the organisation that’s supposed to be delivering the work is a failure, and then more importantly they view the person that hasn’t achieved that work as a failure.”

I asked Dr Lowe why are some governments so attracted to using OBPM methods. “Because it sounds like a brilliant idea. On the surface, the idea that you can make people accountable for producing outcomes is like a politician’s dream. It plays into their sense that the world is controllable and if only they pull the right levers then they can make wonderful things happen.

“And so imagine someone comes to you and says, if you’re a kind of senior government person: ‘I’ve got a programme that will guarantee you to produce the outcomes you want’… who wouldn’t be attracted by that? It’s absolutely what senior folks want to hear because it plays into their desire to control, and in the more positive aspects, to make the changes that they want to see. But the trouble is, it’s just not true, the world doesn’t and cannot work like that.

“Again, it’s part of the promise that says you can achieve savings by focusing activity on outcomes. It sounds like a really good idea. So if we concentrate on only the things that we most care about, that must be a good way to prioritise our resources. So it plays in to a version of the world that the politicians and senior civil servants want to believe in. Again, it’s just not true. All the evidence say that if you focus on a few targets then other things get worse, and because all the things are in one big interrelated system it means that overall things get worse.”

Does the use of OBPM methods inevitably lead to governments implementing privatisation policies, I asked.

Dr Lowe replied: “There’s a kind of spectrum of OBPM of hard and soft. The hard end is payment by results, so we set an objective, we turn that in to a performance indicator and if you don’t meet that performance indicator, you don’t get paid. That’s the hard one.

“Whereas Outcome-Based Accountability (OBA™) is at the soft end. It says we will monitor your performance against those indicators but there are also other aspects to the outcome-based performance scorecard, so you can tell the story around what’s happening as well. And it’s unlikely that just because you failed to hit the first set of indicators that we wouldn’t recommission you, but essentially in the end it has the same effect because people who aren’t achieving against the outcome-based accountabilities are unlikely to have their contracts renewed.

“So yes, it absolutely opens the door to the further privatisation of services. The reason is that as soon as you turn the complexity of public service into simple metrics to be delivered, you turn the complexity of public service delivery into the business of data production. Because in the end all of this OBPM isn’t about producing good outcomes – it’s about producing good-looking data. That’s what’s being paid for. “You know the whole ‘turning the curve’? (the theory of turing the curve is a key feature of the OBA™ model). Think about what that means? Actually, what they’re looking for is for the data to look different. They want the graphs to have a different shape. So in the end, what people are being paid for is to make the data look different – that’s what’s happening in all OBPM.

And who are the best people at producing good-looking data? It’s the Sercos, it’s the G4Ss because this is their business model; working to indicators and ensuring that those indicators are hit.

“So how can a values-based small voluntary organisation or a values-based public sector thing work more effectively at producing indicators than a model at Serco or G4S?

“There is a quote in a paper written in 2011 by Erika Wimbush (Implementing an outcomes approach to public management and accountability in the UK), when she says: “The overall conclusion from international experience of implementing an outcomes approach is that the journey is long and the results are disappointing.”

“That’s so important because I was reading the Northern Ireland Executive framework and it says “these outcomes approaches have international currency”. It’s basing its decision on the fact that a bunch of other organisations around the world are doing it. What it should be looking at is the experience of those organisations, and overwhelming, the 100 per cent clear story of those organisations is that this doesn’t work. Particularly in Australia.

“The tragedy of the OBPM stuff is that they will spend a fortune on the consultants to try and make it work and it will waste so much time. In times of austerity when people are being cut back, they’re going to waste money on a programme that will at best have no positive result, and almost worst is that they will waste a huge amount of everybody’s time when everyone should be focused on getting the job done because that’s the most efficient thing that they can be doing.”

References • 1, Keevers, L., et al. (2012), Made to measure: taming practices with Results-Based Accountability, Organization Studies, 33, 1: 97–120. • 2, ‘Implementing an outcomes approach to public management and accountability in the UK – are we learning the lessons? Erika Wimbush, published in the journal Public Money & Management.

To read Celine McStravick interview, go to http://viewdigital.org/2016/06/29/outcomes/


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